See all stories
10 Aug 2020

Pretty in pink ... and blue: the conservation of two 18th-century gowns

Written by Zuleika Brett
Two very old full-length dresses are displayed flat, side by side. The one on the left is a pale pink with a delicate flower pattern and white lace sleeves. The one on the right is a turquoise blue, also with a floral pattern and lace sleeves.
Textile conservation in action – two 18th-century gowns come to life. (Image courtesy of The Scottish Conservation Studio)
We take a look at the Trust’s collaboration with conservation specialists in order to protect and promote precious items in our care. We focus on two stunning 18th-century gowns in our collection and the processes of assessment, conservation and mounting before they can go on display.

These two 18th-century silk and lace dresses are part of the Angus Folk Museum collection. We know that at least one of the gowns belonged to a local woman, Janet Orr. It is not known how Janet’s father made a living but he was wealthy enough to dress her (possibly for her wedding) in fine silks, with which these dresses are made. Once conserved, put on display and interpreted, the two dresses will offer a glimpse into the otherwise hidden lives of women in rural Scotland who were wealthy enough to wear fine fashions, but not rich enough to have their portraits painted or their lives recorded in any detail.

The gowns will be displayed at House of Dun, part of the project to transform the experience for visitors and become the permanent home for the items in the Angus Folk Museum collection.

We have enlisted the skills of a specialist conservator from The Scottish Conservation Studio to repair, and protect from potential future damage, these two dresses. The journey of restoring and displaying such fragile pieces can be a long and complex one, requiring specialist knowledge and skills. However, the brief to the conservators was simply to ‘prepare the dress for safe display on a figure’.

Expert assessment

The condition assessment of the gowns has been carried out by Tuula Pardoe (BA DipConsText, ACR, Costume and Textiles), The Scottish Conservation Studio’s specialist conservator of costume and textiles. She has provided a report on the condition of both dresses, and proposed treatments where possible and how these will be undertaken. She has previously conserved other items for the Trust, including garments displayed at Newhailes.

Tuula’s passion for textiles grew from her Finnish family background of tailors, dressmakers and weavers. She has worked for the Imperial War Museum, the Old Royal Artillery Museum and Historic Royal Palaces in London, before qualifying as a textile conservator in 1991 from The Courtauld Institute of Art. Tuula was a textile conservator for the Scottish Museums Council (now Museums Galleries Scotland) in Edinburgh for 15 years, before setting up The Scottish Conservation Studio.

Pale pink silk dress

The 18th-century robe à l’Anglaise (English-style gown) of pale pink silk is subtly decorated with brocaded flowers against a vertically thin-striped background. The sleeve ends have gathered, machine-made lace sewn to them – a late, non-original addition to the dress. It’s common to see additions of this kind to dresses of this period. These will be removed to restore the dress to its original state.

Tuula noted in her condition report that the dress is in a good overall condition but has a couple of damages: a tear, several greasy stains to the rear and front, and dye bleeding on the flower motifs along the hem. She also highlighted previous repair work, with patches embroidered to blend in with the fabric’s pattern. This repair work supports the damaged areas well and will be left in place.

Supporting tears: Tuula recommends supporting the small tear along the neckline by selecting a patch of dyed plain-weave silk from the Studio’s stock of dyed materials, to support the fabric around the tear. The damaged area will be sewn to the patch, in laid-and-couched stitches with fine monofilament polyester thread of a closely toning colour.

Reducing greasy stains: These can be seen to both the front and back of the dress. The grease has reacted with the fabric over time and accelerated the natural deterioration of the dress. Tests with organic solvents will determine if it might be possible to reduce the stains without breaking up the silk further. Using a suction table and blotting paper will reduce the stains as much as possible, although this is likely to have limited results due to the age of the damage.

Dye bleeding: Sadly, some stains cannot be removed. Stains from dye bleeding from the green silk thread of the brocaded flower motifs has bled into the surrounding silk along the hemline, where the garment has previously been damp. Tuula photographed a motif affected by dye bleeding, and placed it next to a similar motif from higher up the dress that was not affected by damp and therefore had no resulting dye bleed. This highlights the damaged section.

Creasing: The dress also has some creases from storage. The creases will be relaxed as much as possible with moisture, before drying the dress as flat as possible. Acid-free tissue paper will help prevent further creasing before the dress is displayed.

Turquoise silk dress

This 18th-century short-sleeved open robe is made of fine turquoise silk with a painted floral design. It was acquired from Lord Forres, a descendant of Janet Orr, in 1964.

Again, Tuula has noted in her report that the dress is in overall good condition. The bodice is lined with linen and boned. However, there is wear to the neckline and stains, but this time from sweat. The peculiarly constructed, asymmetrical centre front of the bodice is odd, and lining would not usually show along the front centre of an 18th-century dress like this. How to display this dress will require curatorial input.

Protecting the neckline: Over the years the silk has become worn and is now vulnerable to further damage. This area will be protected by dying fine conservation-grade nylon net to colour match the dress. Then a layer of the net is sewn into place along the neckline using hair-fine but strong monafilament polyester thread, of a similar tone.

A close-up of a silk dress neckline, showing the small neat stitches but also some deterioration in the fabric. A colour swatch lies across the top.
A close-up of the neckline showing the fragile state (photo: © The Scottish Conservation Studio)

Sweat stains: Sweat has caused the silk under the arms to turn a pale grey. Sadly, nothing can be done to reduce these stains. Tuula also noted that the lining has been changed at some point, evidenced by the lack of sweat stains on the lining. This can be seen below, with the right arm outer silk contrasting to the inner lining.

Creasing: The worst of the creases can be removed through light steaming, although a test will be first required as to whether the floral design can tolerate steam.

Mounting the dresses – the art of display

Sculpted figures

The dresses will be mounted on conservation-grade display figures (seen below left). These figures are manufactured from specially selected materials such as papier-mâché and unbleached cotton fabric that are free from harmful chemicals. Manufacturers work closely with textile conservators like Tuula to constantly review and upgrade materials to ensure costumes can be displayed safely.

The display figures will be smaller than the dresses, and then sculpted to the shape and size of the dresses by applying pieces of conservation-grade polyester wadding, which are then sewn in place. This process takes a good deal of time to create that perfect fit. The dresses will be filled whilst being careful not to put the textile under any stress while on display by over-filling. Detachable arms are also constructed from wadding, and connected by Velcro to make it easier to fit through the dresses’ arm holes. The figure is then finished with a layer of washed cream-coloured knitted jersey fabric to create a flawless display standard.

An example of a sculpted figure with detachable arms and a boned petticoat can be seen below. The images on the right give an impression of what the dress will look like when mounted.

A composite image of the various stages of displaying a dress, from the plain model, to a figure with arms and a petticoat, to two properly displayed dresses in a museum.
From left: conservation-grade figure and sculpted figure (© The Scottish Conservation Studio); proposed look of dresses (Images: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Skirt supports and underclothes

Neither dress has its original underskirt (petticoat), but it will not be possible to display the dresses without them.

For the pink gown, Tuula has recommended dying heavyweight plain-weave silk to match the tone of the pastel pink of the dress, and then use this to overlay a washed unbleached plain-weave cotton underskirt. Only the dyed silk will be seen.

For the turquoise gown, Tuula has proposed three possible ways in which an underskirt could be made:

  • Use unbleached cream-coloured cotton fabric to suggest an underskirt
  • Dye silk fabric to match the turquoise background of the dress fabric
  • Digitally print elements of the painted floral pattern of the dress, so that the underskirt might match seamlessly with the outer dress on display

The third option would involve the expertise of the Centre for Advanced Textiles (CAT) in Glasgow, photographing or scanning the designs and several test print runs in order to achieve the colours and pattern sufficiently close to those on the overdress. This is a more expensive and time-consuming option that will need the approval of Trust curators.

A final option is to make a hand-quilted replica petticoat in a silk coloured to suit both dresses. As only one dress will be on display at a time, both dresses could be completed with the one petticoat.

Creating that all-important quintessential 18th-century shape

The gowns were designed to be worn over petticoats, and they would most likely have been worn with a ‘bumroll’ on the hips.

To give the support and essential period shape, replica petticoats made from washed unbleached plain-weave cotton fabric and metal boning will be made. This will support the underskirts and outer dresses and, along with the sculpted figure, will give the dresses their authentic shape on display.

All of the processes above will be carefully documented while being carried out. The gowns will then be displayed in a protective display case.

“I look forward to bringing these fantastic gowns safely to life for the benefit of visitors to House of Dun.”
Tuula Pardoe
The Scottish Conservation Studio
A close-up detail of a section of a blue silk fabric, with a flower pattern.
Detail of the painted silk of the turquoise gown (© The Scottish Conservation Studio)

We hope that this update has given you an insight into a specific conservation project, which is an example of the care given to our wider collection. This activity is only possible for the Trust by working in collaboration with expert conservators like Tuula Pardoe of The Scottish Conservation Studio, and with the support of our funders and donors. The House of Dun transformation is made possible by the legacy of Dr Sheila Bain and executors, and several of our Patrons’ Club members. The conservation of the dresses themselves is being carried out thanks to a grant awarded by the Cedar Trust.

Explore House Of Dun

Visit now